Opinion

The GOP needs to shake off the superconsultants

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Ralph Benko & Andresen Blom
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      Ralph Benko & Andresen Blom

      Ralph Benko, senior adviser for economics to American Principles in Action, served on detail as deputy general counsel to an Executive Office of the President agency under President Reagan and to a Reagan presidential commission. Andresen Blom is the senior strategist for the Center for Civic Virtue, a political and policy strategist, coalition builder and award-winning communicator.

The 2012 election was a tremendous setback for the Republican Party. Rather than fighting boldly for free markets and constitutional rights such as religious freedom, the GOP damaged itself with a message (not “messaging”) of banal platitudes. Then the GOP superconsultants misspent their billion dollars on lucrative media, pollsters and second-rate cyber tech. Meanwhile, the Democrats invested heavily in a smart ground game and state-of-the-art technology.

What went wrong — and how to get it right — was laid out in two recent columns, one from the left and one from the right. Becky Bond, by reputation the greatest field organizer at work in America today, wrote a piece in The Huffington Post called “What the Political Consultants Don’t Want Donors to Know.” Erick Erickson, scourging the cronyism of the GOP, wrote a piece for RedState called “A Primer for Rich Donors Who Got Taken to the Cleaners by Republican Consultants.”

Bond:

According to political consultants and the mainstream media, this year’s unprecedented deluge of TV ads, mailers, and robocalls puts elections from the presidency to state ballot initiatives in the hands of a few ultra-wealthy individuals. This is a convenient belief for the DC political consultants who rake in hefty profits from these tactics — but simply because it is fashionable (and lucrative) to believe that such methods decide elections does not make it true.

 

For those who care to know the real effect of their efforts, cutting-edge research casts doubt on the paramount importance of the tactics now considered sacrosanct among DC insiders. Over the last decade, academics have conducted hundreds of randomized experiments that have allowed researchers to measure what tactics actually get people to the polls and change their minds.

 

[…]

 

The results of these objective, scientific trials should leave us considerably more optimistic about the future of American democracy — and should leave most super PAC donors looking for better ways to spend their money.

Erickson:

[A]d heavy Super PACs outsourced the ad buys, the mail, the data collection, etc. to other groups that got commissions and you can be sure that a lot of these supposedly noble consultants working for free were making a killing off of commissions, referral fees, etc. through their relationships with the commissioned vendors doing the actual work. …

 

Just as important as making money for these guys was control over the data. In fact, in singular importance this campaign season has been the buzz word “data.” But what the hell is that data and why is it so important?

 

Well, for starters, let me fill you in on one piece of technology that flew under the radar this season. It is called Gravity and it is probably the only major piece of campaign technology to come out of 2012 with a proven track record. …

 

In fact, several of the very well-known consultants as seen on TV and others you never see did their best to kill Gravity, stop it from being built, and convince donors who came into contact with it to defund the groups or pressure those groups to move away from Gravity. …

 

Take the voter data, lay consumer data and direct voter contact information on top, and suddenly the job of winning a campaign becomes very manageable. There is a defined, quantifiable list of voters to reach out to, keep up with, and track toward Election Day. More importantly, you will know what issues will resonate best with that persuadable voter. …

 

That is what Gravity did and does. That is why so many rich Republican consultants tried and are trying still to kill it. Why?

 

Because the folks behind Gravity chose not to control the data. All the consultants want to control the data. That is where they make the money. If they control the data, they are in charge.

The most important fight these days is not between left and right. It is between the humanitarian populists and the Washington insiders. The latter view power not as a means to the end of a more prosperous and just society, but as a means to enrich themselves — even if enriching themselves causes their party to lose elections.

So, what is to be done — and how? One of the first things you learn in campaign manager school is that “you can’t beat someone with no one.” Karl Rove took over the GOP party apparatus more by default than by merit. The first step to fixing the Republican Party, then, is to assemble a seasoned, capable conservative political team to present a credible alternative to the superconsultants. The purpose is not to get superdonors to fund the conservative movement. The purpose is to restructure the party apparatus so that the GOP can win elections and govern well.

The second step is to lay out a credible field operation, both in structure and in networked operatives. There are hundreds of highly capable operatives who were shut out by the superconsultants. They represent a potent force for winning elections. But they are a cost center, not a profit center. Superconsultants have no way of invisibly taking big bites out of the funding for such operations. But, unfortunately for the superconsultants, you need great field ops to win.